5 Ways Multifamily Design Will Have to Change

Developers putting shovels in the ground today will need to anticipate what renters want a couple of years from now, notes Rick Haughey of the National Multifamily Housing Council.

On the horizon is a massive wave of demand for apartments that stretches well into the future. In fact, the industry will have to build at least 328,000 new apartments each year just to keep up with demand for apartment living, according to recent research.

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However, anything being designed today won’t see its first resident for a couple of years—or more, depending on how knotted the process is where you’re building. At the same time, there are revolutions already well underway in everything from demographics and consumer behavior to transportation and employment.

And therein lies the real challenge for the development and building community. We will have to be much more anticipatory about what tomorrow’s renters are going to want and need. While the pace of change has expedited, the entitlement process frankly hasn’t. Combine the two trends and you have a recipe for built-in obsolescence. But here are five ways we believe multifamily design can change going forward to avoid that fate and meet residents’ expectations.

  1. Connectivity

There’s no question that a strong web connection is going to be required for the apartment of the future. In fact, 92 percent of respondents to the 2020 NMHC/Kingsley Associates Apartment Renter Preferences Survey said high-speed internet access at home was important, with roughly half of those saying they would not rent without it. Similarly, 75 percent of respondents also said they were interested in pre-installed Wi-Fi in their apartments.

We saw strong demand for cellular connectivity at home as well. Ninety-two percent of respondents said reliable cell reception was important, with again roughly half saying they wouldn’t lease without it. For perspective, reliable cell reception was the No. 1 ranked community amenity—beating out features like fitness centers, reserved resident parking and swimming pools.

But more than just a resident perk, this connectivity is the anchor to the smart-home revolution. We’re seeing growing resident interest in a variety of smart-home products, including smart thermostats (77 percent), smart lighting (72 percent), smart locks (67 percent) and even smart/dynamic window glass (59 percent). But beyond smart apartments, this connectivity is essential to the development of intelligent buildings, linking building systems and services together for preventative maintenance and asset protection.

  1. Control & Personalization
Rick Haughey
Rick Haughey  Photo courtesy of NMHC

We’re an industry very focused on finding efficiencies, but it’s a fact that people want more control over their personal space—and there are few things more personal than someone’s home. Roughly 56 percent of survey respondents said personalized space in their apartments was very important, with an additional 32 percent saying it was important.

But why is personalization becoming so important? It’s because our purchases are becoming extensions of personal brands—and that’s beginning to extend to housing, and really to rental housing for the first time.

In 2018, we conducted a Consumer Housing Insights Survey to find out more about broad attitudes on housing. As part of the survey, we asked people whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “My housing is a reflection of my identity.” Sixty percent said, yes, they agreed. Perhaps more interesting is that this was especially true among key demographic groups, including high-income earners ($100K-plus), young women, older men and the college educated—all of which are groups from which we are seeing a lot of new rental demand.

The takeaway is simple: Finding more ways to provide for more personalization in our apartments will be key in the future. Moreover, it stands to remove what is often viewed as an advantage homeownership has over renting, making apartment living a more desirable housing option. 

  1. Flexibility

Similarly, housing with flexibility built in is going to be much more important in the future. And by flexibility, we mean the ability for spaces to adapt and transform through lifestyle cycles.

Seventy-seven percent of our apartment resident preferences survey respondents said having flexible space was important, with roughly half indicating that it was very important to them. People don’t want to have to move if they decide to couple up (or consciously decouple, as the case may be), grow their families with real or fur babies, start teleworking or even pick up a side hustle or hobby. And this is particularly true of women, who we know play a critical role in all housing decisions.

Whether this means moveable wall systems or transformable furniture (or something else entirely) remains to be seen, but what’s clear is that designing space that can be used in a variety of ways is going to be critical in the future.

  1. Convenience

Nine out of 10 of our consumer housing insights survey respondents said convenience, or having everything at their fingertips, was important to them. But, while today we think of convenience as a community’s proximity to things like restaurants/bars, schools, grocery stores, retail outlets and the like, in the future, convenience is going to mean more. It’ll be about technology for sure, but also the kinds of programming, activity and services the community can bring together, in addition to physical proximity to what’s around the neighborhood.

And this shift is happening because people’s lives are getting busier. We asked our housing insights survey respondents whether they agreed with this sentence: “My life is so hectic (that) I look for ways to make it easier.” While 63 percent of all respondents agreed, the percentage was much higher (78 percent) for millennials.

These young adults are very likely to be renters and renters for longer, so bringing fun, interesting, engaging and enriching activities and experiences to them is going to have value—and possibly a premium.

Health & Wellness

This feeling of being oversubscribed and rushed is contributing to a redefinition of health and wellness. When we asked our housing insights survey participants whether they agreed/disagreed with this statement—”I am working to achieve a healthy lifestyle”—three out of four agreed. But for tomorrow’s renter a healthy lifestyle isn’t just a good BMI; it’s really about achieving balance.

But what does that mean exactly? It means that there is a growing emphasis on 360-degree health or physical, social and emotional well-being.

The development and building community have historically focused on the physical aspect of health, dedicating more space to fitness areas and trying to deliver a better workout experience. But there’s the social aspect of health that’s becoming more important.

In an increasingly digital world, connecting with people in real life is becoming an indication of health and balance. In fact, two-thirds of our housing insights survey respondents said that face-to-face interaction is essential for a good life. And 82 percent said having a space that facilitates those get-togethers is important. That’s something to keep in mind when we start to design our common spaces.

But there’s also the more spiritual and emotional side of health. We’re seeing that trend in the yoga studios that are popping up everywhere and the growth in meditation and mindfulness aids like Headspace and Calm. And there’s indication that it’s a result of technology that makes us always “on,” if you will.

So, we asked about this and 93 percent of our survey respondents said that having a place to unplug or unwind was important. People want and need active engagement and connection, but the need for retreat, rebalancing and rest is also growing in counterbalance. More than half (57 percent) of our housing insights survey participants said they wished they had a better sleep environment.

So, the question is how are our communities helping people achieve that? Beyond thinking about how retreat spaces like meditation gardens, spas or quiet floors can enrich our communities, we need to focus on sound attenuation. Even our residents today are telling us that. Ninety-four percent of the residents participating in our renter preferences survey expressed interest in soundproof walls in their units. More than three-quarters also indicated interest in noise-reducing windowpanes (85 percent) and window shades (77 percent).

Rick Haughey is the vice president of industry technology initiatives at the National Multifamily Housing Council in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at rhaughey@nmhc.org.

Read the CPE-MHN Guide to 2020.